C. S. Lewis vs. Modern Education (Part 1)

Part of my goal in writing these posts is to commend the Narnian stories as a component of Christian discipleship. In doing so, I’m not merely contending that we can read them profitably as Christians, but that C. S. Lewis intended these stories to inculcate Christian values, habits, and truth.

We’ve already seen that he intended these stories to “steal past the watchful dragons” that hindered true affections for God and Christ and that he believed that fairy stories should be read by adults as well as children. But another way to approach the issue of discipleship is to reflect on Lewis’ critique of modern education in his brilliant little book The Abolition of Man.

Lewis regarded the trends in the educational establishment of his day as problematic on a number of levels. Choosing a standard English text-book as his starting point, Lewis offers a shrewd and perceptive critique of the subtle ways in which our educational assumptions and models can negatively impact a society. In this post, I’ll focus on three aspects of his critique.

Marginalizing Value Statements

First, Lewis highlights the subtle ways that modern education marginalizes value statements. The authors of The Green Book that he chose as his example argue that when we make a value statement about something in the world, we are not actually speaking about the thing, but instead making a statement about our own subjective feelings. In other words, when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and exclaim, “That is glorious!” we are not really commenting about the canyon; rather we are simply communicating that we have feelings associated in our minds with the word “glory.” Lewis writes,

The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant (The Abolition of Man, 19).

Separating Fact and Value

Second, this marginalization of value statements results in a sharp separation in the mind of the student between objective “facts” and subjective “values.” The former are rational, testable, and important. The latter are “contrary to reason and contemptible” (25). Moreover, this separation of fact and value is not a creed that is taught explicitly, but an atmosphere and tone that is inhaled and absorbed. It becomes a part of a student’s mental framework of assumptions, and it does so without critical analysis or reflection.

Creating Men Without Chests

Third, a student who thus begins to assume this fact/value distinction will begin to display two traits that are harmful to himself and to society. First, he will begin to view ordinary human emotions disdainfully. He will look down his nose at a mother who is delighted by her children or an old man who tears up when the national anthem is played. Second, this disdain of ordinary emotions will be accompanied by a decreasing practice of classical virtues like courage, sacrifice, and honor. The reason is not hard to see. Familial affection (like that between a mother and child) is the source of self-sacrifice on the part of the mother. The tears of the patriot are intimately connected to his willingness to fight for the flag.

These two factors will have devastating effects on the student and on the society. The student will have cut himself off from the possibility of “having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than [he] have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane” (23). The society in which he lives, which has promoted and celebrated this type of modern education, will be in an ironically broken state:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful (36-37).

Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.